In 2002, a biomedical engineering student at Case Western Reserve released a 10-track album of sampled music entitled Secret Diary. It was not a success. Amazon’s customers have blessed it with 11 1-star reviews out of 17–and this is not a case of a critical success unappreciated by the masses: Splendid compared it to the sound of someone ‘attempting to get his sampler to work,’ Popbunker (in a retrospective review) found it ‘runs [your] eardrums through a tree mulcher.’ Sputnikmusic termed it ‘genuinely unlistenable,’ and the best praise AMG could come up with was that it ‘impressed many in the electronic noise community.’ But don’t take their word for it: have a listen–it’s the first song.
Why is this story so surprising?
If you’ve grown up in America in the last twenty years, or if you’ve been a parent to someone who has, you’re familiar with the grind. Eventually one must be admitted to a good college. It follows–naturally!–that one must go to an excellent high school, must excel in that high school, must take Advanced Placement courses, must secure recommendations. And of course, in the summers, there are college programs that must be attended, acting workshops, motes of achievement to be garnered. And so in middle school one must excel, and in elementary school, and before that–in particularly competitive locales lawsuits have been filed over preschooling standards.
It would be pleasant to dismiss stories like the last: certain mothers, certain cities must simply be crazy. But can we? Sadly not. Increasingly elite America is a meritocracy of access. And the easiest place to find access is between the ages of 18 and 22 at the campus of a highly selective university. Of course Americans succeed without attending elite schools–but it is far harder to fail if one does. When there are graphs like this in the world who can blame the mother who insists her child starts school as well as possible? What would we prefer she do?
Someone is seventeen: they submit to a panel of twenty-two-year-olds a packet of essays, resumés, awards and other documents. The twenty-two-year-olds, often recent graduates of a major university, must decide whether, for the next four years, this seventeen-year-old belongs at the institution from which they just graduated. We have done this for so long that it feels natural: but remember when you were seventeen, and then when you were 21. What did you have in common with yourself? A set of parents, a few siblings? If you kept your priorities you are among the most fortunate. How many people do you know who could have predicted, when you were seventeen, who you’d become in the next four years?
What would we need to believe in order to believe that college admissions processes were reasonable? We would need to believe that it was possible to predict at seventeen who a person would become. We would need to believe, further, that it was possible to make that prediction based on a list of grades and extracurricular activities, 500 words of writing, and two recommendations. We would need to believe, then, that whatever was important about a person manifested in their works. We would need to believe, in short, in a kind of secular predestination: that some are elected, whether by God or the spirit of success, and others are not. And that it is possible to discern by earthly examination which is which.
Predestination: it is among our favorite stories. Joyce at 18 writes to Ibsen. Messi’s first touches on the ball are sublime. Yo Yo Ma performs for Kennedy at seven. This entire section on Warren Buffett. Genius is enduring and immanent, these stories tell us. If someone is truly brilliant, truly talented, they will excel from the moment (likely in their youth) when they first encounter the medium of their prodigality. The world is constative: we are born with talent or we are not.
[It is difficult to say how authentic these stories are. In the case of Yo Yo Ma, few seven-year-olds have performed for Kennedy. But in the case of Joyce–how many letters have been addressed to famous writers by the young? How many have been responded to? And how many of those interlocutors have gone on to succeed? How much of the myth of prodigality (which is the myth of predestination) is constructed in hindsight, constructed by later readers desperate to locate an abiding genius somewhere in their favorite talent?]
It is easy to see why this story is so seductive, so commonly believed even among the talented. To believe in the story of the prodigy is to excuse oneself for any future failure to compete: ‘I am not the writer Joyce is. Well I could never have been; Joyce was a prodigy–at 18 Joyce wrote a letter to Ibsen. I have written no letters. When I was 18 I was playing frisbee and Diablo II. So I am not a prodigy; I need not concern myself with matching him.’ Our future failures become a question of predestination, not of insufficient striving. We become comfortable; we are living the life that we were meant to. If success was meant for us we would have been anointed.
And so we go through life. Believing that what we are, we are. And that we will continue to be that thing. But if you had listened to Secret Diary, if it had been 2002: you would not have been filled with the fire of predestination. Gregg, you would have said, I’m glad you’re getting a good degree in engineering. Because this music stuff isn’t gonna work out. You would have told him to put away his sampler. You would have said these things for his own good.
In the myth of predestination, what would you have expected for Girl Talk? That his first album was, well, like the others, except not as snappy. That his mother would have surfaced to tell stories of the child Gregg, binding centimeters of apples, oranges and pears together with toothpicks to create a new and more delicious fruit, that his undergraduate friends would have recalled the best DJ that they ever knew, that he would have emerged from a Harvard, or an Oberlin at least, and not a 41st-ranker somewhere in Cleveland.
You would have been surprised, first by Unstoppable (2 years later) and then by Night Ripper (another 2 years). You would have been surprised by the absence of predestination. Where did genius come from? What happened in those four years? That story–of a brown-haired man in Cleveland who re-imagined music–may never be told. But the bones of the story are a crucial antidote to the mythos of predestination: once a man was bad at something. He vanished for a few years and returned, brilliant at that same thing. He was not predestined. He chose to go beyond himself. And if he can, perhaps we can as well.